It's tempting to think of the network neutrality battle as one fought in Washington along party lines -- after all, that's true of almost everything in the capital.
But recent research by the campaign finance analysts at MapLight show that the reality is rather more complicated. And for advocates of the open Internet, it's discouraging. It turns out that the views of members of Congress on net neutrality may be dependent less on party alignments than on money. Specifically, contributions from the cable industry.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers such as cable and phone companies shouldn't be able to block, slow or favor some content providers over others, whether for their own competitive reasons or to mulct content providers for more money.
It's a live issue just now, because the Federal Communications Commission has opened public comment on a proposal that would allow Internet providers to make special deals with content providers, allowing those that pay up to reach Internet users faster and more efficiently, but leaving little websites and startups in the dust.
That's anathema to net neutrality advocates, as it should be. Their position is that the FCC should reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service -- Title II common carrier service, in legal parlance -- reversing a decision it made in 2002. That would give the FCC unquestioned authority to oversee bandwidth speeds and terms.
Reclassification is a big political deal, because it would harm the cable and phone companies that are the biggest players in Internet services to homes and offices. And those industries have gobs of money to throw around in Washington.
So MapLight compiled the cable industry's contributions to members of Congress who have signed three recent letters to the FCC, warning the commission to steer clear of Title II reclassification. Letter One was signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and three fellow GOP members of his committee; I discussed it here. Letter Two was signed by 20 House Democrats, including Scott Peters of San Diego and Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana. Letter Three came from House Speaker John Boehner and three other members of the GOP House leadership.
Their themes were all roughly the same: The Internet has done just fine under the thumb of big cable and phone operators. As the Democrats' letter stated, "In the years that broadband service has been subjected to relatively little regulations, investment and deployment have flourished and broadband competition has increased, all to the benefit of consumers and the American economy."
Of course, this is wrong -- broadband Internet service in the U.S. is slower and more expensive on average than in much of the developed world, in part because American regulators have restricted competition and let big incumbents such as the cable and phone companies have their profiteering way.
MapLight's survey shows why.
The 28 representatives who signed those letters "have received, on average, $26,832 from the cable industry, 2.3 times more money than the average for all members of the House of Representatives, $11,651," MapLight reports."Republicans signing the letters against Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility have received, on average, $59,812 from the cable industry, 5 times more than the average for all members of the House, $11,651.
"Democrats signing the letters against Title II reclassification of the internet as a public utility have received, on average, $13,640 from the cable industry, 1.2 times more times more than the average for all members of the House, $11,651."
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who signed the first letter, has collected more from the cable industry than any other member of the House: $109,250 over the last two years. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) "owns more Comcast stock than any other member," MapLight reported. Comcast, the nation's biggest cable firm, is also its largest Internet provider.
You probably don't need to know any more than that to understand the forces aligned in Washington against an open Internet. Plainly, our earlier critique of the GOP House members' stance against net neutrality was incomplete, and even a little unfair. They weren't acting out of politics, but venality. And that's a trait that crosses party lines.